Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have completed what is thought to be the single longest medical drone delivery flight. With a flight time of three hours, the team’s fixed-wing aircraft transported bloods 161 miles across the Arizona desert. 
Drone delivery has got a lot of people very excited. And that’s fair enough. Who doesn’t like the idea of a pizza flying overhead or a pack of spare batteries you ordered five minutes ago hovering right outside the window? But while there have been plenty of gimmicky applications and companies looking to make a marketing splash just by suspending their product from a drone, the potential is real.
Nowhere is it more real than in remote locations that require medical supplies, fast. We’ve already seen this proven to great effect by Zipline, a pioneering startup delivering life-saving packages in rural parts of Africa. When a lack of infrastructure puts lives at risk, there’s less room for hesitation and more leeway for innovation, it would seem. And rightly so.
johns hopkins university drone delivery of medical supplies record flight

Johns Hopkins’ Record Breaking Flight

But there’s one problem with flying medical supplies over great distances. For starters, not many drones are fitted with a refrigeration system to keep bloods and medicines at the correct temperature. That, along with sheer endurance, was the challenge faced by Johns Hopkins researchers.

The solution was an onboard payload system capable of maintaining temperature control throughout the three-hour flight. As a result,  the samples were still viable for laboratory analysis upon arrival.

In a report of the findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology last week, the research team said the achievement adds to evidence that unmanned aircraft can be an effective, safe and timely way to quickly transport medical samples from remote sites to laboratories.

“We expect that in many cases, drone transport will be the quickest, safest and most efficient option to deliver some biological samples to a laboratory from rural or urban settings,” says Timothy Amukele, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the paper’s senior author.

 “Drones can operate where there are no roads, and overcome conditions that disable wheeled vehicles, traffic and other logistical inefficiencies that are the enemy of improved, timely patient diagnoses and care,” Amukele says. “Drones are likely to be the 21st century’s best medical sample delivery system.”

The aircraft used in the study was a Latitude Engineering HQ-40.  The samples were contained in a temperature-controlled chamber designed by the Johns Hopkins team. “Getting diagnostic results far more quickly under difficult conditions will almost certainly improve care and save more lives,” Amukele says.